Minimize ISS Utilisation: NanoRacks Airlock

ISS Utilization: NanoRacks Airlock Module

Overview    Development Status    Launch   References

The deployment of CubeSats and other small satellite payloads from the orbiting laboratory by commercial customers and NASA has increased in recent years. To support demand, NASA has accepted a proposal from NanoRacks to develop the first commercially funded airlock on the space station. 1)

- "We want to utilize the space station to expose the commercial sector to new and novel uses of space, ultimately creating a new economy in low-Earth orbit for scientific research, technology development and human and cargo transportation," said Sam Scimemi, director, ISS Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector."

- In addition to the large number of CubeSats and small satellites NanoRacks wants to deploy from station, their proposed airlock will also be capable of supporting multiple external payloads.

- Signaling a significant step forward in their airlock plans, NanoRacks announced an independent partnership with Boeing on Feb. 6, 2017, to develop the airlock. Once NanoRacks successfully completes the phases outlined in a Space Act Agreement NanoRacks signed with NASA in 2016, the agency has committed to install the airlock for commercial use, research, and technology demonstrations from the International Space Station. 2) 3) 4)

- In May 2016, NanoRacks and NASA signed a Space Act Agreement in order to install a private airlock module onboard the ISS – the first in station history. The NanoRacks Airlock Module will be both a permanent commercial uncrewed module onboard the International Space Station, and also a module capable of being removed from the space station and used on a future commercial platform.

- NanoRacks has selected Boeing to fabricate and install the Airlock's PCBM (Passive Common Berthing Mechanism), which is used to connect most pressurized modules of the ISS – and is the most critical piece of hardware for the airlock. The PCBM hardware is being manufactured at the Boeing facilities in Huntsville, Alabama. Boeing will also provide additional engineering services required for developing and manufacturing of the airlock.

- The commercial opportunities through Airlock begin with CubeSat and small satellite deployment from station and include a full range of additional services to meet customer needs from NASA and the growing commercial sector. Currently, CubeSats and small satellites are deployed through the government-operated Japanese JEM/Kibo Airlock. Additionally, the crew on board may now assemble payloads typically flown in soft-stowage ISS Cargo Transfer Bags into larger items that currently cannot be handled by the existing JEM/Kibo Airlock.

- The in-house team at NanoRacks, led by Mr. Brock Howe, will oversee the project management, mechanical and avionics design engineering, safety, operations, quality assurance, mockups and crew training, and the final assembly, integration and testing of the Airlock. Additionally, NanoRacks will be manifesting the Airlock for launch, with an estimated launch in 2019.


Figure 1: Artists concept of first commercially funded airlock on the space station being developed by NanoRacks that will launch on a commercial resupply mission in 2019. It will be installed on the station's Tranquility module, Node 3 Port (image credit: NanoRacks)



Airlock Overview (Ref. 4):

The Airlock is manifested to launch on a Dragon-Falcon 9 flight in 2019. After berthing to ISS, the Airlock will be removed from the Dragon Trunk using the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) and maneuvered and berthed to ISS Node 3, Port Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) berthing location. Figure 1 shows the installed Airlock onto Node 3, Port.

The Airlock consists of the following systems:

- CDHS (Command and Data Handling System)

- EPS (Electrical Power System)

- Structural System

- TCS (Thermal Control System)

- Video System

- Airlock Utilities

- ISS Wireless System

- Payload Support System

The total mass of Airlock is approximately 1,060 kg.

The Airlock structure is a fairly simple structure based on bell jar type pressure shell design. No hatch is included within the Airlock and thus the Node 3 hatch will provide the isolation of the Airlock from the rest of the ISS. A PCBM (Passive Common Berthing Mechanism) will provide the structural interface to the ISS Node 3. Two PVGFs (Power and Video Grapple Fixtures) will provide the interface to the ISS robotics. The Airlock structure also consists of the inner pressure shell with an outer skin that provide MMOD (MicroMeteoroid Orbital Debris) protection.

NanoRacks selected Boeing to fabricate and install the Airlock's PCBM (Passive Common Berthing Mechanism). PCBM's are used to connect most pressurized modules of the ISS, and in the case of the Airlock, the PCBM is the most critical piece of hardware. The PCBM hardware is being manufactured at the Boeing facilities in Huntsville, Alabama. Boeing will also provide additional engineering services required for the developing and manufacturing of the Airlock.


Commercial Opportunities:

The NanoRacks Airlock Module came to exist as a result of customer demand, a growing market, and, specifically, the need for satellite deployments to operate at a rate demanded by the commercial market. In four years' time, NanoRacks has deployed nearly 200 CubeSats from the ISS, from universities, companies and governments, with over 50 in the immediate pipeline. Additionally, NanoRacks is preparing to deploy larger satellites, known as "microsatellites," which are comparable to the size of microwaves. NanoRacks refers to this satellite deployer as the "Kaber" deployer. The first two Kaber satellites were deployed in Fall 2017 (see ISS-Kaber on the eoPortal). - This class of satellites is the fastest growing segment of the market.

• October 24, 2017: Early this morning, NanoRacks successfully deployed the Kestrel Eye IIM (KE2M) microsatellite via the Company's Kaber Microsatellite Deployer (Kaber) from the International Space Station. This is the largest satellite that NanoRacks has deployed to date, and the first deployed from the Kaber deployer. 5)

• On October 27, 2017, NanoRacks successfully deployed NovaWurks' SIMPL satellite via the Company's Kaber Microsatellite Deployer (KABER) from the ISS (International Space Station) early this morning. This is the second Kaber-class deployment that NanoRacks completed this week. 6)


Figure 2: SpaceWorks Enterprises Launch History (image credit: Space Works)

NanoRacks continues to prove the International Space Station as an ideal satellite deployment platform for a number of customer needs – including the availability of numerous launch opportunities, ideal deployment inclination for Earth observation, and hands-on operations via the NanoRacks BRIDGE (Base for Research, Investigation, and Deployment ofMicrogravity Experiments) and the astronaut crew on board, including unique photo opportunities of deployments. Additionally, NanoRacks has developed the "Stash and Deploy" concept, in which satellites are stored on the International Space Station for extended periods of time, and deployed on demand when time is critical, rather than waiting for a launch opportunity.

Commercial opportunities through Airlock begin with CubeSat and small satellite deployment from the ISS, and include a full range of additional services to meet customer needs from NASA and the growing commercial sector. Currently, NanoRacks' customers CubeSats and small satellites are deployed via the NRCSD (NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer) through the Japanese Kibo Airlock. The NanoRacks Airlock Module will offer about five times the payload volume currently accessible via Kibo.

The market demand can be broken down as follows:

1) Government organizations (both U.S. and foreign)

2) Satellites companies

3) Commercial ISS users

4) Educational users.


Role of U.S. Government and Future Implications:

NanoRacks has chosen a business model that is quite normal on the Earth, but far less common in the nation's space program. Fundamentally, NanoRacks pays for its own hardware. For example, NanoRacks has invested $5 million in the Company's External Platform, over $4 million in the satellite deployment program, close to $1 million in internal research frames., and $15 million to manufacture the Airlock. This expenditure has made the International Space Station more robust, asserted American leadership, and spurred the growth of new markets.

NanoRacks does not seek upfront NASA money because that's not how the commercial marketplace operates. NanoRacks is focused on the seamless transition from ISS to a marketing place in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) with multiple commercial space stations. The agility of the private sector is needed to create this transition, and eliminate any gaps in LEO presence.

NanoRacks investments, especially in the Airlock, are intended to develop the technical expertise and hardware base to eventually own and operate the Company's own space stations – a realistic goal the Company has set as United States policy and PPPs (Public Private Partnerships) with NASA have matured.

The Airlock is a pioneer program in the commercial space market. Together with NASA, NanoRacks is forging an even larger partnership than just that for satellite deployment – one where the commercial sector provides hardware, destinations, and resources, and the government acts as a customer. NanoRacks has made it clear to the Space Station Program Office that the Company expects others to enter into partnerships as such with NASA – both for space station use, and for better use of taxpayer resources to further NASA's mission to bring humans into deep space.

In summary, the NanoRacks Airlock Module, launching in 2019, will dramatically increase commercial activity on the International Space Station, including five times the payload volume for satellite deployment. Boeing is manufacturing the PCBM (Passive Common Berthing Mechanism), the most critical piece of the Airlock. The Airlock will be owned and operated by NanoRacks for the remaining lifetime of the ISS, with Boeing as a partner for the duration, and is capable of being relocated to a future commercial LEO space station.


Development status:

• April 17, 2018: The NanoRacks Space Station Airlock Module "Bishop" met another major milestone with completion of the CDR (Critical Design Review) on March 20 and 21, 2018 in Houston, Texas. This milestone begins the transition from the engineering design phase to the fabrication phase. Detailed design drawings such as those for the critical pressure shell will be signed and released to NanoRacks fabrication partner, Thales Alenia Space, in order for them to continue their fabrication efforts. 7)

- Bishop will offer five times the satellite deployment volume than current opportunities available on the Space Station today. The Airlock is manifested to launch in late 2019. 8)


Figure 3: Illustration of the NanoRacks Airlock - first commercial Airlock on the Space Station (image credit: NanoRacks)


Figure 4: Airlock technical overview (image credit: NanoRacks) 9)

• NanoRacks reports in February 2018, that Thales Alenia Space has been chosen as the latest partner in its commercial airlock program. Thales Alenia Space will produce and test the critical pressure shell for NanoRacks' Airlock Module, which is targeting to be launched to the International Space Station late 2019, and will be used to deploy commercial and government payloads. Thales Alenia Space will also manufacture various secondary structures, including the MMOD (Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris) shields with MLI (Multi-Layer Isolation) panels, the power and video grapple fixture support structure and other structural components. 10)

- "We are very proud of our selection by NanoRacks for this key commercial program," said Walter Cugno, Vice President, Exploration and Science at Thales Alenia Space. "Signing this contract not only ensures our continued role as a global leader in space infrastructures, it also emphasizes our distinctive skills and expertise. Thales Alenia Space will bring to this program over 40 years of experience in the design and production of high-technology solutions and will continue to provide these capabilities both for the International Space Station and for future space exploration initiatives."

- NanoRacks signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA in 2016 to install the first-ever private Airlock Module on the International Space Station. In February 2017, NanoRacks announced a partnership with Boeing to build and install the PCBM (Passive Common Berthing Mechanism), which will connect the Airlock to the rest of the Space Station.

- "Thales Alenia Space was the obvious choice when it came to fabricating our Airlock's pressure shell," said Brock Howe, NanoRacks' Head of Airlock. "Thales Alenia has manufactured over half of the Space Station's pressurized volume, they understand the Space Station's systems and they have produced some of the world's best aerospace hardware. We're looking forward to a very successful partnership that expands our manufacturing alliances into the heart of Europe."

- Thales Alenia Space will produce and test the pressure shell this year, then ship it to NanoRacks' Integration Facility in Houston, Texas in 2019. NanoRacks will integrate the avionics and wiring to complete the airlock assembly.

- NanoRacks' engineering and operations teams will handle airlock integration, functional testing, crew training and final inspections. The Airlock will be then shipped to Florida for final pre-launch preparations and installation on the SpaceX Dragon Trunk, to get ready for the scheduled launch on the SpaceX CRS-19 mission. NanoRacks also teams up with ATA Engineering and Oceaneering on the airlock's subsystems.

• October 3, 2017: NanoRacks announced Oct. 3 that it had raised an undisclosed amount to support development of a commercial airlock module for the International Space Station. 11)

- NanoRacks said that Space Angels led the bridge round investment in the Houston-based company. Formerly known as Space Angels Network, Space Angels provides early-stage funding to companies through its members, individual accredited investors.

- The undisclosed funds will be used for completing a commercial airlock module that NanoRacks plans to install on the ISS in 2019. "This investment will expedite our production, and it's wonderful to have Space Angels invested in this landmark program to enable the future of commercial space," Jeff Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, said in a statement.

- NanoRacks signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA in 2016 to develop the airlock, which will handle satellite deployments and other experiments that today use the airlock in the Kibo module. "The reason we want our own airlock is this airlock is going to be five times bigger than the current airlock, and it's going to be far more commercial," Manber said in a Sept. 27 presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia. - In addition to satellite deployments and experiments, he said the module will be commercial "real estate" on the station, with the ability to mount payloads on its exterior. "It's getting us more into the real estate business and space station operations," he said.


Launch: A launch of the NanoRacks Airlock Module on the SpaceX Dragon Trunk is scheduled for the SpaceX CRS-19 mission in 2019. The launch site is the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, SLC-40 (Space Launch Complex 40).

Orbit: Near-circular orbit of the ISS, altitude of ~400 km, inclination = 51.6º, period = 93 minutes.


1) Mark Garcia, "Progress Underway for First Commercial Airlock on Space Station," NASA, Feb. 6, 2017, URL:

2) "New airlock is a big step towards transition to more commercial ISS," NanoRacks, Feb. 6, 2017, URL:

3) "NanoRacks, Boeing to Build First Commercial Airlock Module on International Space Station," NanoRacks Press Release, Feb. 6, 2017, URL:

4) Jeffrey Manber, Kevin D. Foley, "The First Commercial Airlock Module: Building The Commercial Space Market," Proceedings of the 68th IAC (International Astronautical Congress), Adelaide, Australia, 25-29 Sept. 2017, paper: IAC-17-F1.2.3

5) "NanoRacks Successfully Deploys First Customer Microsatellite from ISS, Largest to Date," NanoRacks, 24 Oct. 2017, URL:

6) "NanoRacks Deploys Second Kaber-Class Microsatellite This Week, First On-Orbit Assembly," NanoRacks, 27 Oct. 2017, URL:

7) "NanoRacks Commercial Space Station Airlock "Bishop" Completes Critical Design Review, Moves to Fabrication," SpaceRef, 17 April 2017, URL:

8) "NanoRacks Airlock Module: Bishop," NanoRacks, URL:

9) Brock Howe, "NanoRacks Airlock Module - The Commercial Gateway to Space," NanoRacks, URL:

10) "NanoRacks adds Thales Alenia Space to team up on Commercial Space Station Airlock Module," Space Daily, 5 Feb. 2018, URL:

11) Jeff Foust, "NanoRacks raises funding for commercial airlock module," Space News, 3 Oct. 2017, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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